The recent budget statement by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich will be remembered for the cheap ugali it proposed. This underlies how affordability of basic food remains a pressing challenge that has bedeviled the country for years. A two-kilo maize flour packet has been selling for more than Sh100 for years now. Milk too, remains a luxury beyond the reach of low-earning Kenyans. Although a bunch of ‘sukuma wiki’ has constantly sold for Ksh5 for decades, the size of the bunch keeps getting smaller.
The fact is, food prices shoot high mostly because of man-made factors that include unsustainable farming practices, over-reliance on specific food, cartel-control of certain foodstuff plus food storage challenges.
Sustainable modern agriculture entails farming in a manner that replenishes land and the ecosystem instead of depleting it. This means for instance, that crop rotation, crop diversification, irrigation and organic farming should become the norm, not the exception, especially amongst small-scale farmers. If farmers embrace these practices, food yield and affordability will go up.
Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation often advises farmers that crop rotation helps in tackling crop disease and enhances soil nutrients. I suggest that we go a step further and set aside funds that will help smallholders across the country to transition into sustainable agriculture. This is the only action that will increase food yield and food affordability in a sustainable way.
The World Bank is already doing this through its World Bank Biocarbon Fund. This Fund has enlisted over 20,000 Kenyan smallholder farmers in its Kenya Sustainable Agricultural Land Management Project. This project trains farmers in sustainable agriculture and provides financial incentives for them to do so. The National and County Governments should team up and broaden this approach so that smallholder farmers can start farming in a smart and sustainable way that will give them high yield and access to Green Money.
This quest to revolutionise smallholder farming must be particularly keen on irrigation. A continued dependence on rain-fed agriculture defies logic. If combined with smart rain-harvesting techniques, irrigation will turn our current one-acre farms into multiple-season farms that produce diverse crops.
Africans get surprised to learn that USA, which doesn’t even consume ugali is the leading maize exporter globally followed by Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and France. All these countries don’t depend on maize as much as we do. But they produce so much of it that they earn billions of dollars from exporting it. We need to follow suit and ensure smallholder farmers have enough water and knowledge to earn livelihoods from sustainable farming even as they feed the country.
- The writer is the founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation